Interviewed by Yuriy Lapayev
How the public sentiments in Lithuania changed after NATO troops were stationed there? Is there a sense of being protected how, especially among the public opinion leaders?
Before these NATO units were stationed in all Baltic States, we said always and everywhere that Zapad 2017 exercise was nearing and we didn’t know whether our countries were the target of that exercise. Would it only take place in Belarus or would it reach our land too? People accepted this with concern and wondered whether they could feel secure. When NATO units were stationed in our countries we informed the population that it was the guarantee of our security, that we are part of NATO. When the US Congress passed the resolution on the readiness to apply Article 5 on June 27, 2017, and President Trump signed it, we recalled 2004 when we were joining NATO. Back then President George W. Bush came to Vilnius. He said that whoever attacked Lithuania would be the enemy of the United States. Now, the US has reaffirmed these commitments but at the level of the Senate, made it into a law. We are a reliable NATO partner, we spend more than 2% of GDP on defense. NATO in turn complies with what it declares. We are very happy to have these units here. Of course, we were concerned about how our people would accept them. We did a simple poll. Do you know how people responded? 81% said it was good. It was a surprise for us and good news for our partners. Now we have German and Dutch troops stationed here. Lithuania is between Belarus and Kaliningrad. The distance is a mere 80 kilometers in the area of Suwalki. If you think about Russia’s reunification plans, it raises concerns naturally. But according to the latest news, Russia has invited our observers to its exercise. I think this exercise is not an irritant for us because we have NATO guarantees.
Still, we continue to see this as a threat. One exercise scenario has Lithuania attacking Russia. Which sounds weird, we are not an aggressive country. The units stationed in Lithuania are not big, they have a symbolic role, their purpose is to deter, not to attack. Moreover, we constantly point to the fact that this is not just Lithuania’s frontier but the frontier of NATO and EU. Therefore, our security is not just our concern, but that of the entire Alliance.
Lithuania started to purchase liquified natural gas from the US and is promoting the creation of Baltic infrastructure for it. At the same time, other EU members are developing projects together with Gazprom. How does Lithuania see its energy security in that context? What do you to plan to do to improve it?
We have viewed North Stream 2, and still do, as a political project. Some EU member-states see it as an economic one. But we know that it would hurt some EU countries and Ukraine. Therefore, we agree with the US in that it has imposed a package of sanctions to halt it. Our experience shows that after the opening of Independence, the floating storage and regasification unit in 2015, the price of gas went 30% down. I think everyone would find this news good to hear. The price has not only changed in Lithuania, but in other Baltic States as well. We used to pay the highest price in the EU, one third more than Germany did. Now, our experience shows that diversification of gas supplies is a must.
We received the first American gas last week (on August 21 – Ed.). And the purchase of gas is no longer a political decision, it turns into a simple market process: we buy where it’s cheaper. The market has begun to work, there is no Gazprom monopoly. I may be mistaken, but if North Stream 2 is built, a third of gas for all Europe will go through those two pipes. That ties the entire region to Russia’s deliveries.
There is another important issue: Russia will be receiving revenues from the EU which it can later use in its war with Ukraine. We are trying to say this loud, so that there is no doubt about the support of Ukraine. We believe that these are the right and bold steps, they are necessary now to support democracy.
Do you notice any instruments of political influence that Russia is using in your country? If so, how does Lithuania respond to those?
Lithuania faces cyberattacks. We are trying to react and take measures immediately. A respective excellence center has been established for cyber security. In this domain, there are things on which Ukraine can work with us. As to propaganda, we have it. We call it soft power that tries to influence our people. And we see the counter reaction of the population to propaganda: we are vaccinated against it. Lithuania had been occupied by the Soviet Union. Hundreds of thousands of innocent people had been sent to GULAGs, died in resistance to the occupiers. So we know what it is.
And, of course, we work in this direction, we provide people with objective information. It must be helping us leave this situation as winners. We have recently completed the construction of a new repeater system in Vilnius, we have launched the broadcasting of Radio Free Europe programs in Russian and Belarusian. This was done specifically for the part of the population that speaks Slavic languages. Earlier, they lacked programs in the languages they are used to.
Moreover, we are planning to negotiate with Poland to have Polish programs broadcasted in our territory. We are confident that we should be looking for new ways all the time in this information war. Because the other side is not stopping its influence and wants to change the minds of our people.
At the same time, I think there is no influence on our politicians.
In your opinion, how much the difference between what the Kremlin says and what is going on in Ukraine in reality is understood in the West?
There are no problems with the countries that share a border with Russia or Belarus. They understand things clearly as they are. The countries that are farther start talking about no need for sanctions. However, based on Lithuania’s experience we can say that we no longer suffer because of Russia’s retaliatory measures. We managed to diversify our economy and it has even grown stronger. We managed to offset the losses by finding new markets in the West and in the East. We are trying to not trade with Russia alone. We believe that sanctions should be kept. We always say that we don’t recognize the annexation of Crimea. The integrity of Ukraine should be within the borders of 1991. History hints at that idea for us: the US did not recognize the annexation of the Baltic States, including Lithuania, and we are grateful for that. I think that democracy should win in Ukraine’s case as well.
I once met with a representative of Cyprus. I asked him what he thought about the prospect of reunification. He said it was impossible. Then I told him: could anyone believe that our country would be independent in 1985? It’s only the will of God and people. Ukrainians should believe. Just like our fathers and grandfathers believed as they stayed in the prison camps.
My uncle showed me a Lithuanian flag and a textbook of Lithuania’s history written before the occupation in 1977, I think. He showed me the anthem. He was saying then that Lithuania would be free. I thought it was impossible. But he believed, he remembered the independent Lithuania.
I recently spoke at a summit. The focus of my contribution was Ukraine. I made a correction there that, of course, it wasn’t the conflict in Ukraine, but the Russian aggression. The phrasing is wrong. We are trying to change that belief in the West about the conflict being an internal one for Ukraine. And they hear us. We know Ukraine well, we have common history.
Your party’s success in the latest election came partly from the platform it offered, including the promise to work to reduce emigration from Lithuania. How soon do you expect to see positive results in this? What is Lithuania doing to accomplish this goal?
Emigration is a very sensitive issue for us. Over the past 27 years, nearly one million people have left the country. This is a lot for Lithuania. Every year, a town of county capital size leaves. However, Lithuania always had emigration, except for the period of the Iron Curtain. Given the number of our population, every emigrant matters to us.
I think we have been following a wrong path in our education system. We have managed to educate and train many smart people at our universities but they have not managed to find a job here. Everyone wants to have a decent life and to get a job based on his or her degree. Therefore, people are looking for better conditions abroad.
The gap between the economies of different countries allows people to get higher salaries. Many have left to make some money and return. Today, we are seeing a growing demand for real estate. This means that people are coming back. However, there is a problem with families: once they leave and their children grow used to a new country, it becomes more difficult for them to return.
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What measures are we taking? We are changing our education system so that people could get more training to work in the trades – we have a deficit of such specialists now. In addition to that, we are raising minimum wages. Our plan for the next two years is to bring average wages up to EUR 1,000. This is the level that will allow people to live decently and make them think twice on whether it’s worth leaving the country.
Our party plans to pass a new Labor Code that will liberalize the market, protect the rights of employees to improve the trilateral dialogue of the workers, trade unions and employers. Of course, we are a free country and will not keep anyone by force here. Freedom of movement is one of the key principles of the EU. However, we hope to create the conditions and a decent life for people to want to come back.
The “law of three employees” whereby foreign investors are required to employ at least three citizens of Lithuania to be able to work in the country: how is this affecting business? Is there a discussion on amending this law? Or is it having a positive effect on the local population?
I don’t think this law is a problem. It was passed to fight against shell companies and prevents money laundering. It’s purely legal regulation. Moreover, the requirements are not that tough: it’s only three people.
We are trying to help investors, this is confirmed by our rating in Doing Business: Lithuania is 21st in the world in 2017. Our high quality of education and mandatory knowledge of foreign languages (many people speak three) helps.
There has been talk of a Marshall Plan for Ukraine: what dynamics do you expect of it in the near to mid-term prospect? Do you think it might get the support in the rest of the European Union that Eastern Partnership had back in the day?
The official title is Lithuania’s Plan for Ukraine in 2017-2020, it was prepared by the Lithuanian Seimas. The goal of the plan is to develop and support small and medium business. This takes around EUR 5bn per year. If everything goes as we have it in mind, the program will for both for Ukraine, and the European Union. When we speak about Brexit, it is the shrinking of the EU. Ukraine is a possible extension of the EU. Ukraine is an important player in Europe. Our goal and the goal of Ukraine is for it not to stop on the path of European integration. We have been presenting this plan wherever I have been: at the celebration of the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, at the summit of EU member-states’ parliament speakers. We have been saying that this Lithuanian plan should become a plan of the entire Europe for Ukraine. Now, this idea has reached the European Parliament, it has reached all levels.
European politicians have begun to recognize and understand that today’s investment into Ukraine is the investment into the future of the European Union. By helping Ukraine we are helping ourselves.
The more of this knowledge we pass on to other countries, the better the vote on this will be. All decisions are taking through consensus in the EU. A resolution is being prepared on the Marshall Plan for Ukraine at the European Parliament. We are doing our lobbying. But you need to demonstrate your success in implementing reforms. You have a lot of accomplishments. Show them.
Viktoras Prancketis was born on June 26, 1958, in the village of Ruteliai, Lithuania. He worked as agronomist from 1976 to 1977, then entered the Lithuanian Academy of Agriculture. Mr. Prancketis chaired the Gardening and Vegetable Farming Department. He became dean of the Agronomy Department in 2008. In 2015, he was elected to the Self-Government Council of Kaunas region. In 2016, he was elected to the Seimas of Lithuania. On October 14, 2016, he became Speaker of the Seimas. Mr. Prancketis has authored a number of academic books, textbooks and reports.